Social media the next bit of manageable evolution

September 26, 2010
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For those of us who have been in the human resources business for a number of years we have seen a lot of change as a result of technology. It has effected how we meet legislative requirements, from electronic distribution of benefit SPDs; to hair tests for drug profiles; to the whole arena of record keeping, and the beat goes on. Clearly, technology has been a boon to analysis and management reports; keeping tabs on trends; and maybe even allowed a bit of problem solving.

It crept into human resource practices slowly at first, then increased more rapidly as organizations began to understand there was opportunity in HR efficiency and depth of knowledge, it was really focused on management needs. The situation is rapidly changing with a new player added to the mix — the employee.

It used to be a situation where the technology tools were controlled by management through budget or operating practice approvals. The new situation involves a different set of parameters and ones that may not be so easily controlled. To consider running a business without computers today is almost unthinkable. Consequently, the business has to put these magnificent tools into the hands of the people doing the work. This really is handing them the two-edged sword.

Employees can use the equipment to accomplish the objective in the prescribed manner, sometimes almost without thinking, or management can open up the gates a bit and say get the job done, or achieve the objective, or even let's beat the expected standard.  This emphasis on outcomes and letting people use their creativity with limited controls can lead to unexpected positive contributions to organization objectives. However, it requires trust, training and talking about expectations.

Just like when you raise children, you never know what you are going to get, but when you do the right things over a period of time, it increases your outcome of success substantially. The child is going to be exposed to a lot of influences you won't know about until long after the event, but the groundwork you laid over time will influence choices, judgment and outcomes. The same can be said every time your employees are exposed to new technology, freedoms or social trends. They can use it to your benefit, their benefit or both. Sometimes they will make poor or irresponsible choices.  Your responsibility is to help them make proper choices by knowing your expectations. And just like children, you can't expect them to know what is expected without discussions and training, and occasionally appropriate corrections.

Your employees may have phones and computers with them at all times because they work from remote locations, or the job is not confined to a set work schedule, or even personal choice. Whatever the reason, the technology becomes part of their lifestyle and they use it as a way to stay connected to their social support systems. If you think you are going to stop this, think again. You and your IT support team don't have enough time or technology to control "the troops." Even heavy-handed clamp downs through strong policies and discipline don't work. As an example, the government of Iran wanted to control election opposition and took a very hard line and sought control of the Internet as one technique. The dissidents became very good at the cat and mouse game. They even invented special software (The Haystack) to conceal their efforts of rebellion. You don't want employees spending their time figuring out how to get around your edicts.

The key to success is to become familiar with the elements of social media, (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Linked-in, etc.) figure out how they can fit with your business, ask the employees to contribute their knowledge and build on this technology. Be sure you set expectations, roles, requirements and communicate them to your employees. Then follow the guidelines (which may be better than fixed policy), since that will never keep up with technological change. Just remember how difficult it is to set dress code standards; technology will change even faster than fashion. You may also need to cut people a little slack from time-to-time. It's like letting the shop welder use the machine after hours to build his new bike rack; he can do it on your time or his time, but he is going to build that rack.

The general point of all this discussion is that doing business has always been conducted in an environment of change. Social media is just the next bit of evolution. It may be more dynamic than other business practice changes, since it involves an integration of both business and personal activities, but it can be managed. You are not going to stop social media entering your business, so figure out how to make it work for you. Get IT and human resources working together to support business operations.

Ardon Schambers is principle of P3HR Consulting & Services, a human resource services company.

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